Loizos Michaels could talk the shirt off your back and the money from your bank account. Successful businessmen, wily politicians, experienced judges, athletes, gang members, waitresses, tradesmen - it didn't matter. All manner of people here and in Australia bought his lies.
"He is the best con artist New Zealand has seen," someone who knew him well told the Herald. "How else could he convince some very smart people, some of them leaders in their field, to drop everything and give him millions of dollars?"
Australia may not have seen his like before either. "It's just that the public here don't know it yet," says Victorian fraud detective Jim Peios, who locked up one of Michaels' associates. The Herald has separately learned that Australia may extradite Michaels to face further charges when he is released from jail.
A talent for lies and a weakness for gambling runs in the family. Michaels' sister, Helen Vassilakis, is also a confidence trickster, who is sought by police in Australia. Although Michaels claimed in court last month that their late father was a miner who accumulated significant wealth, this is contradicted by a source close to the family who described him as a drunk, a gambler and a philanderer.
The fabrications of brother and sister overlapped.
Even while on the run in Melbourne in 2010 having skipped bail in NZ, Michaels came to his sister's aid, trying to smooth over cracks in her stories. If gentle persuasion didn't work, Michaels would use menace. He threatened that "people would pay us a visit", says an Australian victim of his sister who the Weekend Herald agreed to name only as Maria. "He would go from being the nicest guy to threatening us with bikies."
Michaels had his victims believe that he was their ticket to success but also someone it could be dangerous to cross. He implied that an adversary who died of a heart attack that was not suspicious, had actually been killed by lethal injection on his instructions. He would pretend to be on the phone to mysterious overseas masters and on occasion didn't even bother with a phone.
Three witnesses told the Auckland District Court, where Michaels was yesterday convicted of 30 deception charges totalling $3 million, that he would claim to be receiving instructions on an invisible ear piece from someone called "Uncle". Vassilakis also invented characters to scam Maria.
The stories Michaels invented to defraud New Zealanders included a takeover of SkyCity, setting up a casino in the old Wellington railway station and an internet gambling enterprise. He claimed to be the heir of a cruise line fortune, to have the backing of billionaire Macau gambling magnates, the Ho family, and of the Australian Packer family and to be connected to the Japanese Yakuza, Cypriot mafia and Melbourne underworld.
It was the practice of the man apparently born Loizos Michael to introduce himself simply as "Michael". Intrigue, illusion, flamboyance and cash, which Michaels preferred in $100 bills, were king. Michael is the name most knew him by, including those who came into his web via his hopelessly insolvent Plato's Greek Taverna restaurant on Ponsonby Rd. In Melbourne, some knew him as Loui. He didn't have a bank account and seldom put his name to documents but was never short of a fat wad of notes - courtesy of his victims - stuffed in his suit pants pocket.
As far as last names went, he used Loizos, Loizs, Lozis, Loizis and Loizou, the last supposedly his mother's maiden name.
"Michael Loizou" married Caroline Wood in Queensland in November 2004 in a Greek orthodox wedding. The Kelston, Auckland, woman met Michaels while living in the sunshine state. He swept her off her feet with his story of being about to inherit a fortune from his late father, an owner of Louis Cruise Line.
He was full of plans, surrounded by people and suddenly elusive after their child was born in 2005. It was the second child for Michaels, who has a daughter to a Melbourne woman.
Extraordinarily for a man adept at juggling so many details to sustain his fictions, he couldn't recall the birthdate of his first born. "Approximately 2001", he said in court last month.
Michaels and Wood reunited briefly in Melbourne and then, at Christmas 2006, Michaels joined her in Auckland where she had returned to be close to her ill mother. He'd left behind him in Queensland a trail of victims he'd scammed with a story about representing international investors in a proposed half-billion dollar one-stop-shop film production complex.
Here in New Zealand, his wife and her parents became his first victims.
They formed Trades R Us Ltd, a contracting company for people wanting builders, electricians, plumbers, pool cleaners or dog walkers. Thousands of dollars of debt was run up in the company's name.
"(There were) all these inept half-pie builders and painters, and all these people rorting the system," Wood said in court. "I was trying to contain the uncontainable." Michaels bought Diablo restaurant, renamed it Plato's and had it renovated by tradesmen from Trades R Us.
He called the shots but Wood, whose name was on directorship papers and personal guarantees, carried the can. "I'm bankrupt now," she told the court. "My son and I lost our home. It went to mortgagee sale. We've basically been grovelling around for the last couple of years."
A clue about what Michaels did with the cash came when the prosecutor asked Wood about her husband's "presence inside casinos". "I seriously doubted his presence was ever outside of a casino," Wood retorted. "He was a compulsive gambler!" When he phoned at night she could hear pokie machines in the background. An Australian victim told of three times witnessing Michaels burn through large sums in short order in a Cairns casino and evidence was heard that Michaels and his "best friend" George Plakas, a fellow Greek from Melbourne, lost $160,000 in two months at the Christchurch casino where the pair presented themselves as high-rollers.
It was there Michaels made his most lucrative sting. He demanded VIP service, complaining to the casino board chairman about service and a lack of due deference. Casino chief executive Stephen Lyttelton responded with free five-star accommodation, fancy dinners and plentiful alcohol.
Lyttelton and gaming manager Peter Arbuckle consequently spent a lot of time with the pair and professional obligation turned into something else. Michaels was in grooming mode: charming, generous, and open about his wealth and connections in the global casino industry. He claimed to be a "corporate raider" for the casino giant Melco owned by the Ho family and offered Lyttelton a job with a $1 million salary. The promised salary rose to $2.5 million, then $12.5 million, as the role grew eventually to a takeover of SkyCity Entertainment Group, an organisation with annual turnover of $280 million.
Convinced Michaels was legitimate, Lyttelton recruited Arbuckle who was promised a salary of $1.5 million to work on the takeover. The Christchurch casino bosses resigned in mid-2007 and waged a PR campaign against their former employers, whose company is half-owned by SkyCity, alleging prize-rigging and loan-sharking rackets aimed at driving down SkyCity's share price to aid the takeover. A Department of Internal Affairs investigation found no basis to the claims.
Once he had hooked Lyttelton and Arbuckle, Michaels encouraged them to "show commitment" to the enterprise. Over five months, Lyttelton handed Michaels $1 million and Arbuckle $1.46 million of his own money and that of family and friends. This came in dozens of cash payments, often six-figure sums, days apart. "I felt if I didn't pay then all fury would break loose with Michaels," Lyttelton told the court, "and my opportunity with the Melco group would be placed in a precarious situation."
Michaels, Plakas, Lyttelton and Arbuckle relocated to Auckland where they drove late-model BMWs worth $200,000 that Michaels bought with cash. They would meet at Tikiboy coffee shop across the road from Plato's to plot the fictional takeover.
An insider recalled a suitcase "full of cash" in the boot of a BMW, while someone who watched the group at Tikiboy likened them to "the Mob". "It was like something out of the movies. I couldn't believe this happened in Auckland."
The entourage lived at the Edgewater Motel in Orewa, north of Auckland, owned by an investment group connected to Eric Watson. Michaels claimed to know the former Hanover boss and offered to buy the motel for $10.5 million. When the money wasn't forthcoming and Michaels was $10,000 behind on rent, the Edgewater management tried to evict them. A brown paper bag arrived with cash to settle the debt.
While the casino bid seemed outrageous, ready cash and the presence of Lyttelton and Arbuckle made it seem real. "He was flashing enough money around to make him seem legitimate," the insider said. "He always came up with enough to keep you hanging on."
Then Plakas, the portly former IT worker and indefatigable Aussie Rules fan, was arrested in May 2007 at Auckland International Airport. He was extradited in April 2008 to face fraud charges laid by Victorian police for which he was jailed for five years and five months in May this year for defrauding friends and acquaintances there of almost A$750,000 ($950,270).
Despite losing his partner in crime, Michaels kept up his charade. He was introduced to rugby star Jonah Lomu and ex-Labour Cabinet Minister John Tamihere, who he offered lucrative roles in the casino empire he claimed to be building. Tamihere enjoyed the hospitality of Loizos at Plato's, but walked away.
Lomu hung around longer. The rugby legend was promised $15 million to front a global kickboxing competition which, like so many of Michaels' promises, came to nothing. They had met through a mutual friend at a cafe on Wellington's Courtenay Place in 2008 and eventually Lomu signed a contract that would allow Michaels to use his image to promote the KO World Series Ltd.
When Fair Go frontman Kevin Milne confronted Michaels on behalf of several models who hadn't been paid for promotional work for the kick-boxing venture, envelopes of cash turned up at TVNZ as payment. Milne had found the conman in a back room at Plato's with a nervous-looking Lomu. The conman had put his arm around the veteran journalist, asked if he was married and when Milne replied that he was, told him, "bring your wife in here for a meal, we'll have a great time". He was, said Milne later, "a sad mafia type".
Michaels exploited Lomu's name in a sting that netted a third of a million dollars. Unbeknown to the rugby star, in a ploy to garner credibility, Michaels put Lomu's name on an offer document to buy a luxury apartment complex on the shores of Lake Taupo called Sacred Waters. Michaels told owner Janet Jackson that the money for the $12 million purchase was in a Belgian bank account and somehow persuaded her to make payments of $353,000 to ensure the sale went ahead.
Finally, after numerous meetings at Plato's and no sign of any progress, Lomu decided he'd had enough.
"I kept seeing all these people walking in and out, being disgusted ... (because) they haven't been paid, they haven't been delivered whatever it was," he told the court. "Then I sort of knew, okay, something's up here."
While the KO World Series never took off, the sport enabled Michaels to make real connections with the underworld. He used Trades R Us to sponsor a fight night organised by the Headhunters gang at their Ellerslie headquarters, headlined by former world champion Jason "Psycho" Suttie. Michaels soon met another semi-pro fighter, Hells Angels Adam "Boxer" Riley, who later moved into an apartment above Plato's which became his bail address when he and Suttie were charged with kidnapping (both were acquitted). Conveniently, Riley's presence in the flat above Plato's intimidated creditors visiting the restaurant. Other members of the gang were regular patrons and would park their gleaming choppers out front, and the restaurant was even listed as a sponsor of the Hells Angels MC annual "Poker Run" charity ride in 2010.
But not even the gang presence could stop the growing number of disgruntled tradesmen and restaurant suppliers lining up to bankrupt Michaels.
As well as ignoring creditor claims totalling more than $180,000, Michaels failed to pay Plato's staff. The Employment Relations Authority heard at least four cases and ordered the restaurant to pay more than $18,000 in wages and holiday pay.
One staffer, Kay Jackson was awarded $2311 by the ERA. She said of her boss: "If lying was an Olympic sport, he would win the gold medal."
A talent for deceit runs in the family. Michaels' inability to provide the Auckland District Court with titles to prove his claimed land interests in Cyprus, or to produce his father's will to support his claim of a A$2 million inheritance, prompted prosecutor Christine Gordon, SC, to pointedly ask whether Michaels expected the court to just accept his word.
Words were all he had. On the stand he played the victim, making wild claims that banks were involved in money laundering, that the SFO had manipulated witnesses. No documentation or other witnesses were presented in his defence. Clerical errors, he said, in explanation of why different identity details such as names and birth dates appeared on Australian company documents. Mistaken or liars, he proclaimed when asked about testimony from a lineup of witnesses who said Michaels had passed himself off as the owner of a Mediterranean cruise line or the envoy of the Ho family. It was incorrect, said Michaels, that he ever claimed to be plotting a takeover of SkyCity.
Yet his sister, Vassilakis, told the victim of one of her scams that her brother virtually ran SkyCity. That lie helped squeeze a total of A$51,000 out of the pocket of Maria and her Melbourne house-painter husband. Vassilakis duped Maria into going into a fictitious lighting business with her.
The family history is opaque but it seems Michaels and his sister were born in Cyprus and aged about 7 and 6, emigrated with their parents to Australia. Until she slipped away to Queensland where she was found in a resort with her brother by Federal police acting on an order for Michaels to be returned to New Zealand, Vassilakis had lived with her two sons and her mother Panayiota, in a one-bedroom state house. She too was a gambler, though on a smaller scale to her brother. Staff at a Melbourne hotel where Vassilakis was a regular at the pokies have complained to police of being the victims of her frauds.
Vassilakis and Maria met through their sons, who were schoolfriends, and Maria fell for Vassilakis' stories of woe. Maria has a daughter who due to brain damage at birth suffers severe epileptic seizures and needs constant care. Vassilakis claimed to be epileptic too. Soon after Maria mentioned she was looking for work she could do from home to supplement her husband's income, Vassilakis claimed to have worked in the lighting industry for 17 years and suggested they go into business together. Next, she claimed to have a big order from a Chinese businessman - the non-existent, "Mr Lee" - that would set them up.
"Within a few months of our first 'lighting order'," Maria said in her police complaint, "Helen rang me with some 'unbelievable' news. Her brother in fact is a 'silent partner' in an Auckland casino, SkyCity. He has recommended 'our company' to be contracted to supply the lighting for the casino which was being fully renovated."
Vassilakis had claimed Michaels was "a very successful businessman living in New Zealand" and was funding her half of the investment in the lighting company. But there never was a lighting company, or a major Chinese client, or a manufacturer with a factory in Egypt busy producing the goods. Vassilakis had tricked Maria by using different cellphones to pose as buyer and supplier in text messages.
A range of excuses for delays and reasons why more capital was needed - including that Michaels was in a serious condition in hospital having been stabbed at his restaurant - followed during 18 months until Vassilakis disappeared.
As Maria realised she had been conned, Michaels' fictitious bid to topple SkyCity was catching up with him back in Auckland. Rich Lister businessman Peter Goodfellow, with an estimated family wealth of $550 million, was concerned at the influence Michaels had over his close friend Lyttelton.
Goodfellow, the National Party president, had loaned Lyttelton $114,000 and signed up as a director of the company set up for the SkyCity takeover, New Zealand Casino Services, as did his friend, cabinet minister Gerry Brownlee. But at a lunch at an upmarket Viaduct Harbour restaurant with Michaels and Lyttelton, Goodfellow smelt a rat. "I noticed his clothes were not particularly sharp and his shoes were scruffy, and this was a man who said he had connections with one of the most wealthy families in Asia." Goodfellow hired private investigator Gary Howarth to tail the Greek businessman and check his background.
Howarth discovered Michaels' so-called links to Melco and the Ho family were fabrications and Goodfellow confronted Lyttelton with the information. Lyttelton at first refused to believe it but when reality bit, he went to the Serious Fraud Office.
Meanwhile another of Michaels' scams was unravelling. He had been in negotiations with Sir Ngatata Love, a Maori leader and academic in Wellington, to develop the capital's railway station into a casino and shopping centre. Meetings between the two men were often held at Plato's, where Love was sometimes accompanied by his partner Lorraine Skiffington, a Wellington lawyer and consultant. At the time, Sir Ngatata was the chairman of the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust which had secured the right to buy the Wellington Railway Station as part of its Treaty of Waitangi settlement. A sale and purchase agreement and supporting contracts were drawn up but Wellington accountant Barrie Skinner laid a complaint with the SFO about Michaels after he handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars for the development. (In an unrelated case, Skinner has since been convicted of a $3 million tax evasion scam and jailed for eight years.)
Michaels brazenly kept on bluffing, even after he was charged in February 2010. He tried and failed to sue the Herald for defamation over a series of stories in 2009 and to keep details of his case suppressed. But he managed to pull off one last New Zealand con. In July 2010 a district court judge gave Michaels his passport back because he said he needed to visit his sick mother in Melbourne. It was a year before the law caught up with him again at the Queensland resort. Predictably, a casino wasn't far away.